5 Tips for Making Healthy Choices in the College Dining Hall

Student doing homework while having breakfast in the cafeteria
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With the start of the fall semester, many young adults are adjusting to college life. For new students, this may be their first experiences of freedom and independence regarding when, where, what and how much they will eat. 

Surrounded by the pressures of school, students often experience cravings for comfort foods that are high in fat and sugar. As a result, the convenient all-you-can-eat dining hall can become the perfect avenue for making poor food choices.

Here are five tips for making better choices in the university dining hall.

Make a Beeline to the Soup and Salad Bar

Start each meal with a cup of broth-based soup or a salad topped with no more than two tablespoons of dressing. Consuming high-volume, low-energy-density foods such as soup or salad before your main entrée can lead to feeling filled sooner. Then, you'll be more satisfied by a smaller portion of your entree.

Scout Your Options before Filling Your Plate

Many foodservice companies post their menus online. Ask your university dining service if they have a website featuring menus and nutritional facts, and use it to your advantage when selecting your meal. Or, if menus are not posted or you are too busy studying for midterms to check, scan all the serving stations to see what's available. After assessing your options, you'll be able to make an informed decision about which items to choose to create a balanced meal.

Decode the Menu

Take note of the descriptive language accompanying menu items. Adjectives such as "creamy," "fried" and "rich" often mean that a dish will be higher in fat and calories; "steamed," "sautéed," "grilled" and "roasted" often signify that the food was prepared by a method using less (or zero) added fat. If the description is unclear, ask the dining hall employees how an item was prepared.

Follow a One-Plate Rule

Resist the urge to sample every featured item and follow MyPlate guidelines. Add lean proteins such as beans or grilled chicken to one-quarter of your plate; add whole grains such as quinoa or brown rice to another quarter; cover the remaining half of your plate with vegetables and fruits. The fiber and protein in this nutritionally balanced plate should satisfy your hunger and keep you going until your next meal. However, be mindful of hunger cues. If you feel hungry 20 minutes after eating, your body wants you to have a little more.

Be Smart about Beverages

Juice and soda are sweet and go down easy. But, if you are not mindful of your portions and consume them freely, these drinks can contribute a significant amount of calories. If you want them, be sure to only drink small servings of these beverages for between meals when you can really taste them. At mealtimes, select water or unsweetened tea and allow the flavors of your food to shine through.

Remember, the dining hall is about more than just food. It's a great place to meet up with friends after class. After finishing your meal, clear your plate and spend the rest of your time enjoying your study break.

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Colleen Sideck
Colleen Sideck, MPH, RDN, is a registered dietitian based in the Washington, DC, metro area. She shares her passion for health and wellness through her work as a program coordinator for a national corporate wellness company. Colleen enjoys running, hiking, practicing yoga and experimenting in the kitchen to create flavorful, plant-based meals. She blogs at Plant Packed Plates. Follow her on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.